The Sino-Indian Cold War in the Maldives – The Diplomat

The importance of the Maldives, one of the most geographically dispersed countries in the world, continues to increase. The island nation, which comprises 26 atolls spread over 90,000 square kilometres, is located in a central position in the Indian Ocean, southwest of Sri Lanka, and straddles major maritime lines of communication. Until recently, the Maldives was best known for its pristine beaches and luxury resorts, and considered a vacation destination for the rich and famous. However, in recent years, the strategic importance of the small island nation has not escaped anyone, especially India and China.

While India has always viewed the Maldives as an important player in the Indian Ocean and given it the necessary priority, Beijing has also intensified its engagement with the Maldives in recent years, signaling its intention and priorities in the ocean. Indian as part of his 21st century. Maritime Silk Road Initiative, the maritime half of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

A look at the historic relationship between India and the Maldives

The Maldives, which is just 70 nautical miles from the island of Minicoy in the Indian archipelago of Lakshadweep and 300 nautical miles from the west coast of India, has always been India’s friend. However, the nature of this relationship remains dynamic and complex due to factors such as competing national rivalries in Maldivian politics and the importance of foreign policy to the general public due to the country’s geostrategic location.

India was not only one of the first countries to recognize the Maldives after its independence in 1965, but also the first country to open a resident mission in Male. For its part, the Maldives opened a full-fledged high commission in New Delhi in November 2004, at the time one of only four diplomatic missions in the world. As the relationship began to deepen with growing economic and diplomatic engagements, the crucial turning point came in 1988, when India responded to a coup attempt against former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom by launching Operation Cactus. Although it was widely noted that Gayoom first approached other countries for help, it was ultimately India that came to the rescue of his government. While Gayoom maintains friendly relations with India, it is also moving towards China, a rising power in the Indian Ocean.

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Democratic elections held in 2008 brought Mohamed Nasheed to power in the Maldives. Nasheed had a clearly pro-Indian stance. In 2009, the Maldives and India signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement, under which India would install 26 radars on all atolls for seamless coverage and link them to Indian Coastal Command, and the Indian Navy and Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) would conduct joint surveillance and patrol activities. New Delhi has also agreed to provide the Maldives with a Dhruv helicopter and help establish a 25-bed military hospital in the island chain, among other agreed cooperation mechanisms. This brought the Maldives into the Indian security grid. Events such as the 2004 tsunami and the drinking water crisis in the Maldives in 2014, which led to prompt and positive responses from India, have further cemented New Delhi’s position as a supplier of Internet Security and First Responder in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Relations between India and the Maldives soured during the tenure of Mohammed Waheed Hassan and Abdulla Yameen, with both leaders pro-Beijing. But even then, the decline should not be overestimated. Although Yameen had an anti-Indian stance during his election campaign, once in office he softened his rhetoric on India and visited the country. During his visit, the Indo-Maldivian Defense Action Plan was signed and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not mince his words when he said that the Maldives were among the closest partners of India.

Initiatives such as the Greater Male Connectivity Project, training of Maldivian officials in India, cargo ship services, capacity building and training of the MNDF, and infrastructure projects such as the Gulhifalhu Port Project and Hulhumalé Cricket Stadium, are among the plethora of projects undertaken by India in the Maldives.

The commitment between the two countries is based on India’s “Neighborhood First” policy and the Maldives’ “India First” policy. In particular, in the field of defense, the two nations have an extremely close relationship based on the understanding of the need to protect the IOR from conventional and unconventional threats. The two nations regularly hold joint exercises such as “Ekuverin” and “Dosti” (the latter was later joined by Sri Lanka).

In 2020, India provided a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft to the MNDF, which is expected to bolster efforts to more closely monitor Chinese vessel movements in regional waters. One of the main functions of this aircraft is to carry out medical evacuations of isolated communities on some 200 inhabited islands. It will also contribute to search and rescue and counter-terrorism operations, as well as monitoring and combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Interestingly, the need for the Dornier aircraft was initially raised by the Yameen government.

For India, the Indian Ocean is of utmost importance. Since 2014, after the Modi government came to power, India has been proactive in consolidating its leadership role in the Indian Ocean by prioritizing diplomacy and maritime initiatives. This comes against the backdrop of China’s growing assertiveness in the IOR and the growing interest of various powers in the Indian Ocean in general, and the Maldives in particular.

Chinese influence in the Maldives

China established bilateral relations with the Maldives in 1972. Since then, the Chinese have gradually increased their investment in the Maldives and maintained cordial relations with various Maldivian governments. Beginning in 1985, Chinese companies began to enter the project contracting business in the Maldives. By the end of 2001, the cumulative value of their contracted projects was $46.37 million, with sales reaching $40 million.

The turning point in Sino-Maldivian relations came in 2013 after Abdulla Yameen came to power. Coincidentally, this is also the year Xi Jinping became Chinese President and launched the ambitious BRI a few months later. The following year, Xi visited the Maldives and urged the country to join the Maritime Silk Road. The Maldives thus became the second country in South Asia, after Sri Lanka, to officially endorse the BRI. Subsequently, the two nations signed a free trade agreement.

Chinese authorities have consistently encouraged Chinese citizens and businesses to visit and invest in the Maldives. The Chinese have undertaken a series of projects such as the construction of roads and housing, the expansion of the main international airport, the development of a power station and the construction of a bridge to connect Malé with Hulhule, among other investments in tourism. and agricultural. China is also the main source of tourists to the Maldives.

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Under the Yameen government, the Maldives has accumulated nearly $3.1 billion in debt, according to former President Nasheed. However, other Maldivian officials have placed it at a lower figure, somewhere between $1.1 billion and $1.4 billion, which is nonetheless a significant amount for a country with a GDP of $4 billion. dollars.

In 2018, it was reported that the Chinese were planning to build a joint ocean observation station at Makunudhoo in the northwest of the Maldives. However, this plan was later abandoned. At various times, there has been speculation about a possible Chinese naval base in the Maldives. However, much to India’s relief, these remained speculative. The Chinese Navy has only visited the Maldives twice so far.

Since Ibrahim Mohamed Solih came to power in 2018 after beating Yameen in the presidential election that year, India has been favored over China, with the current administration reneging on some commitments to the Chinese.

India or China?

The fight between India and China over the Maldives is crystal clear. While India has always favored the Maldives, the latter’s behavior has changed depending on the regime in power. However, one thing is clear: the Maldives cannot ignore India because of its geographical proximity and multi-dimensional relationships, now set in stone.

The geostrategic location of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and its proximity to Diego Garcia means that the United States, one of the most powerful powers in the Indian Ocean, has also come to recognize the strategic value of the Maldives. In 2020, the United States and the Maldives signed a defense agreement, the first Malé has signed with a country other than India. Due to the closeness between India and the United States, India welcomed this agreement. The Maldives also shares a close relationship with Japan and has welcomed developments related to the Quad.

But just as India-Maldives relations weren’t all bad under Yameen, all is not well today. In recent months, the “India Out” campaign led by former President Yameen has gained momentum. The debate is apparently over an Indian-funded shipyard for the Maldivian Coastguard, but the biggest concern is over the island nation’s sovereignty. It is essential to note that the Indo-Maldivian relationship is based on mutual respect and the main function of the Indian personnel stationed in the Maldives is to maintain and operate the aircraft.

Thus, the politics of the Maldives decides its foreign policy, which ultimately reflects the direction in which the nation will incline. Next year’s presidential elections will again decide who will be in favor, but in the long run, India and the Maldives share a special bond, which cannot be bought by China. Whatever happens, India must continue to take a proactive stance towards the Maldives and help the country deal with threats such as climate change and terrorism.

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